REVIEW: The Hate U Give is a Powerful Reflection on Racial Injustice
In this day and age there is an all encompassing aspect of reality that will never not demand to be explored and portrayed in media: race relations and racial injustice as a whole. In expedient fashion, the subject is used as a reflection of the real world to showcase the very many evils that brood from prejudice and hate, lending itself to topical commentaries, timely studies and just powerful, profound films, if anything. This year, we’ve had a fair share of these types of movies. Films like Blindspotting, Monsters and Men and BlackkKlansman. It can almost be said to be something of a genre in itself.
Young Adult properties have the notoriety of staying on the surface-level. You may find yourself hard-pressed to getting something beyond the familiar teenage-oriented trappings from the genre. From dystopian science fiction (The Maze Runner, Divergent etc) to romance (To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before); decent movies themselves but not much else to boot. The Hate U Give is different in this respect because while it indeed is a young adult property, it mixes a coming-of-age story typical of the young adult book genre with the relevant race relations and injustice faced by black people in America; particularly racism and police brutality.
Based on the novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give follows Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), a young black girl from a low-income, high-crime neighborhood who travels across town to attend an affluent, mostly white prep school. Caught between these two imposing realities, she develops something of a dual consciousness to help her cope; “Starr Version 1” can be described as a typical, black teenager thriving with her middle-class family: mother Lisa (Regina Hall), father Maverick (Russell Hornsby), half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and little brother Sekani (TJ Wright). On the other hand, there’s “Starr Version 2”, who has to blend in with the bulk of her white counterparts so as to be accepted and not seem “too ghetto”.
It all makes for an interesting narrative shell which is completely upended when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood friend, Khalil Harris (Algee Smith), at the hands of a white police officer during an unfortunate traffic stop. The grief, the inner turmoil and the dilemma of having to navigate the situation of whether to speak out or remain silent about the crime; that is what makes the film and George Tillman Jr. directs it unflinchingly.
Right off the bat, the performances in the film across the board are great. Amandla Stenberg, in particular, is phenomenal. She gives such a subtle and nuanced performance, showcasing an interiority that is rarely ever seen in adolescent roles and capturing the way a teenager could embody several personality types, handling grief and angst whilst navigating the harsh realities one eventually has to come to accept about the world. A star-making turn, if I’ve ever seen one.
Russell Hornsby, the patriarch of the Carter family is excellent as well. He gives such a strong and commanding performance; from the opening of the movie, with him delivering “the talk” to his kids (the talk being the jarring truth about police brutality towards black people) to him going to questionable lengths to keeps his family safe. He oscillates between ‘larger than life’ and meditative and balances both expertly.
Regina Hall is also noteworthy as Starr’s mother. The voice of well-meaning reason and a counterpoint to the rather rash motivations of several characters. Even Algee Smith (Khalil), in his short time on-screen, leaves such an impact that when the tragedy hits, you are right there with Starr on the asphalt, raging and breaking down.
The rest of the film deals with the aftermath of Khalil’s killing. The devastation it brings upon Starr’s life and the community around her, the alienation and eventual confrontation with her school friends and the attention (both welcome and otherwise) of a Black Lives Matter activist played by Issa Rae and the steely, menacing local drug-lord played by Anthony Mackie.
George Tillman Jr.’s direction scores top marks. He showcases both sides of the struggle with racial injustice in such a raw and honest way. True to the real world, there are situations where there is just no compromise. No middle grounds. And these themes reflect in characters that are borderline irredeemable.
“I don’t see color.” remarks Starr’s white boyfriend played by Riverdale’s K.J. Apa in one of the more memorable scenes. It may seem like a well-meaning sentiment but the film proceeds to debunk this seemingly clueless claim because it is not exactly about “seeing” color. It is about what one does when they SEE that color. What prejudices and predispositions lie in the heart? “If you don’t see my color, then you don’t see me.”
The film has to handle a lot of tonal shifts, some almost quite literally (visually) as the cinematography switches between warmer tones when Starr is within her black community and colder, “whiter” hues when she is in the prep school and around the rich neighbourhood. It features some intense moments that are nothing short of uncompromising and powerful but still balances them here and there with the occasional lighthearted cadence that is typical of a YA property. It all adds to and reinforces the multifaceted narrative Tillman aims for and builds a sense of hope in the midst of despair that is even larger and more broadly relevant than the already enormous racial themes the film is trying to tackle.
Yes, at times, the resolution of events, as hefty as they are may seem too cutesy to the point of mawkishness but it is still effective with its all-encompassing message of the evil of racism and the deleterious effect of the hate channelled externally and also, the one within. It may seem easy to dismiss this film amid of the more prestige, “adult” dramas (mentioned above) but I believe I have been able to highlight a reason or two why one shouldn’t. Well written, deftly directed and powerfully acted, The Hate U Give may not be not a Spike Lee joint but it very much deserves to stand amongst its counterparts as one of the best; never to be underestimated or written off as just another teen-focused young adult film.